Among ListVerse’s “10 Great People You Should Know But Don’t” is Rabban Bar Sauma, a monk of the “Nestorian” Church of the East who was born in 1220 near Beijing. During his middle years, he and one of his students embarked on a pilgrimage from Mongol-controlled China to Jerusalem. Danger near modern-day Syria prevented them from arriving to their destination; rather, they spent their time in Baghdad. During this period of about twenty years, the younger monk that Bar Sauma was traveling with had been elected Patriarch of their Church after the death of his predecessor. The new Patriarch then suggested his teacher, Bar Sauma, to meet with the Pope and other European monarchs to form a strategic Franco-Mongol alliance.
Bar Sauma, accompanied by gifts, 30 elephants and assistants, traveled to Constantinople, Italy and France. Along the way, he witnessed and recorded Mount Etna’s eruption on June 18, 1287. A few days after his arrival in Italy, he also witnessed a naval battle between King Charles II and James II of Aragon. Although his mission proved to be unsuccessful, Bar Sauma’s writing depicts Medieval Europe through the eyes of a foreigner, of an intelligent and observant monk from the East and encouraged communication and trade between the East and West. By this time, Bar Sauma was already in his early sixties, and after settling down in Baghdad, wrote down the accounts of his travel just as Marco Polo and his father set off for Asia on his well-known and famous trip to the East.
The two travelers, one from the East and the other from the West, were able to capture the cultures, lifestyles and ideas of the two ends of the Silk Road, as well as everything in between, from two entirely different perspectives. And though today, Marco Polo has far overshadowed the works and travels of Bar Sauma, the latter’s records have provided students and researchers alike with a reverse viewpoint of this travel.